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Decoding the Facts and Truth behind Alcohols in Skincare

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Life or skincare, somehow Alcohol always finds itself on the wrong side of the road. Just as in life it is known to give us temporary satisfaction with empty promises, its role in the skincare world is not too different. To understand the buts and hows behind why Alcohol is playing your arch nemesis in your skincare routine, we have just the article for you, so read on to find out more.


With tons of conflicting opinions presented to us at the click of a button, it can get a bit tricky to figure out what the truth actually is! If Alcohol is all that bad, then why do some of the biggest brands swear by it? There has to be some truth to it… or that’s what we think!

So, what is the main reasons for Alcohol to find itself a comfortable spot on the ingredient list of our beloved skincare products, let’s find out:

1. Preservation:

Alcohol prevents skincare products from developing tiny microbes such as fungi and bacteria from growing thus drastically increasing the shelf life of the product.

2. Feather Light Formulation:

It helps to lighten the weight and texture of a formulation and how it feels on your skin. You often find them in toners, gel-based moisturiser or serums to give you an airy texture that does not make you feel like it is wearing down the skin with grease. 

3. Enhanced Penetration:

It helps the skin to absorb active ingredients such as Vitamins, Retinols or Peptides. 

4. Solvent:

Alcohol makes a great solvent due to its low molecular weight. It increases quick evaporation and water-soluble nature; it works well in binding ingredients that do not dissolve well with water.

5. Mattifies Your Skin:

It helps to get rid of your shin, a common concern for those with oily skin. Due to its quick drying properties, it can instantly de-greases your skin reducing the appearance of excess oil.

6. Used as a Disinfectant:

Alcohol is a natural antibacterial formulation that kills microbes and germs living on your body and surrounding. Therefore, most hand sanitisers are known to contain at least 60 percent of it in their formulation.

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It is important for us to make well informed decisions before inadvertently picking a product with the wrong Alcohol or shunning away that useful product simply because the term Alcohol drives you up a wall. There are a few main types on Alcohols used in skincare products and we have summarised a few common ones you are most likely to cross paths with:

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The Good Alcohols:

You may feel that all Alcohols are harmful, that may not necessarily be true. While you may try to keep away from them there are a few that could be necessary to use. These are a list of Alcohols that are considered relatively safe to use on the skin.

    1. Fatty Alcohols:

    This is mainly a natural derivative from animals and plants such as Coconut oil and Waxes. They are used as thickeners, emulsifiers or emollients for hair and skincare products such as shower gels, shampoos, conditioners and cosmetics. Contrary to popular belief, they can help to moisturise the skin and are not drying agents. These are a few commonly used Fatty Alcohols:

    2. Behenyl Alcohol:

    It is a humectant that prevents water loss from the skin and absorbs moisture from its surrounding and should be used by those looking for hydration and smoothness. 

    3. Cetyl Alcohol:

    This helps to combine oil and liquids together in products therefore known for its emulsifying properties. 

    4. Stearyl Alcohol:

    This is an organic fatty compound that helps to keep ingredients stable in products. This too acts as an emulsifier and thickener and can be found in stick products such as deodorants. 

    5. Cetearyl Alcohol:

    It is used as a nontoxic, moisturising agent used to soften your skin texture. It is a combination of Cetyl and Stearyl Alcohol. They are used in moisturisers, body butters, lotions and soaps.

      The Bad Alcohols:

      The fast-drying nature of Alcohols can be extremely harsh on the skin causing irritation and dryness. They may damage the skin cells and break its defence barriers leading to risk of exposure to free radicals that can further develop into infections and bacteria causing acne.

      1. Denatured Alcohol:

      Also known as Alcohol Dent, is made by removing a specific property of Alcohol. It does not have any specific benefit to the skin but is used to enhance the texture of formulations. It helps to thin and smooth out the product for easy application which helps to absorb quickly into the skin. It draws out the natural oils and therefore is used in many products that promise a mattifying effect. This can lead to stripping away the essential oils and moisture from your skin. Though it is best to be avoided by all, those with sensitive or dry skin should especially keep away.

        Other Commonly Used Alcohols:

        1. Benzyl Alcohol:

        It is used as a preservative and solvent to dissolve ingredients together. They are generally considered safe to use but too much of it can be a skin irritant causing rash or allergic reactions. 

          2. Isopropyl Alcohol:

          This is usually used as a rubbing Alcohol when mixed with water as an antiseptic. Due to its ready penetration into the skin, using too much Isopropyl Alcohol can cause accidental poisoning. Using small amounts repeatedly causes itching, redness, rash, drying, and cracking. 

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            Even though Alcohols are widely used in skincare products, they are not ideal as they can irritate the skin and cause loss of water by breaking down the protective barrier of your skin. This is how using products with Alcohol can hurt your skin:

            1. Breaks down Skin’s Barrier:

            It's easy absorption allows actives to penetrate quickly into the skin. Our skin acts as a barrier against harmful radicals, while doing so it might defend itself against some nourishing ingredients as well. In order to aid the penetration process, Alcohol tears down these walls helping them to reach into even deeper layers of the skin.

            2. Aggravates Acne:

            With the skin’s defence mechanism lowered, we face a higher exposure to dirt, dust and environmental pollutants that settle into our open pores. Over time, our clogged pores will develop acne causing bacteria that leads to breakouts. 

            3. Increase Oiliness:

            Due to its quick absorption, it is easy to be misled into believing that Alcohol decreases greasiness while in fact it performs the opposite function. You may temporarily notice your skin to retain balanced oil levels however the excess oil is not long gone. This is because you are drying out your skin and your body is stimulating more oil secretion to combat this dryness leading to increased oiliness. 

            4. Skin Dehydration:

            If you feel a tight sensation on your skin, that means your skin is dehydrated. Alcohol strips our skin of its natural oils and can be too harsh on skin causing excessive dryness. The oiliest skin types are sometimes the most dehydrated and the best way to combat this is by getting rid of all your Alcohol induced products.

            5. Inflammation:

            Those with sensitive skin should avoid alcohol in their skincare at all costs. The formulation can cause irritations such as breakouts, redness, inflammation that could adversely affect your skin’s health due to its harsh chemical properties.


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            While Alcohol scores tons of negatives on the skincare front, they sure do have a role in maintaining hygiene and sanitation. Before you hop on to buying that toner or face serum lurking from the store window, be sure to check its ingredients list to save yourself from a skin hangover. 


            -Howrah Lookhmanji

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